Skip to main content

Prison Sentences

Volume 622: debated on Thursday 15 February 2001

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

3.22 p.m.

What is their response to the recent lecture by the Lord Chief Justice to the Prison Reform Trust on ways to reduce the number of people sent to prison.

My Lords, the Lord Chief Justice put the case for reduced reliance on short-term prison sentences and for increased use of community penalties. The Government believe that, although many offenders can be effectively punished in the community, prison is the right response for serious and dangerous offenders. In the case of persistent offenders, short-term prison sentences may be appropriate where community sentences have been shown to be ineffective.

My Lords, although I thank the Minister for that Answer, does he appreciate that that is an inadequate way to deal with a lecture by this country's foremost criminal judge, who has particular knowledge of prison conditions following his Strangeways inquiry 10 years ago? Is the Minister inviting a considered and careful response from the Home Secretary? Is it not important to do so from the public's point of view? The Minister will know from yesterday's Question Time of the bad conditions in prisons. They are caused by too many prisoners being sent to prison and by the fact that accommodation is not available. Everyone is adversely affected, including prison staff and prisoners. The whole outlook of this country is gradually being changed by the constant demand in the media for longer prison sentences. What is the Government's response to that?

My Lords, I have the greatest respect for the Lord Chief Justice, as does my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. We obviously believe that prisons are an appropriate place to send those who are sentenced when the offences are serious and persistent and, in particular, when violent or sexual offences are involved. That is how we use prisons; our policies are clear and firm.

On the noble Lord's general comments on prisons, of course there are bad examples of bad prisons. In the main, however, we are confident that the Prison Service is doing a first-rate job, and it should be supported in that regard. For every negative report on prisons and the Prison Service, there are many positive reports.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the noble and learned Lord said in his lecture:

"There should be a Board responsible for women in the criminal justice system. Its responsibilities in relation to women should be similar to that of the Youth Justice Board. It should regard its primary responsibility to be to contain the growth of the women prison population"?
Does my noble friend agree that that is a very important proposal? What action will the Government take in that regard?

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for that thoughtful question. The Lord Chief Justice's suggestion is very helpful and it reflects well on the work of the Youth Justice Board. We shall obviously consider the matter in the most positive light and give it very careful consideration.

My Lords, I have two questions for the Minister. First, do the Government accept that the single most corrosive element in the Prison Service is that of overcrowding? That means that the programmes that are designed to reduce the reconviction rate and to prevent re-offending are neglected. Secondly, do the Government agree with the observation that was made by the Lord Chief Justice towards the end of his lecture? He said:

"What would have a greater effect on overcrowding than anything that I can propose would be an announcement by the Government that it fully accepts the damaging effects of prison overcrowding and that it attaches highest priority to eliminating this problem".
Are the Government prepared to follow the Lord Chief Justice in that regard and make such an announcement?

My Lords, I certainly agree that overcrowding is undesirable. The Government's policy is directed towards reducing it as much as possible. The situation that persisted in the early 1990s, in which many prisoners occupied cells that contained three prisoners, no longer obtains. We no longer have trebling but, sadly, we do have doubling. I inform your Lordships' House that, as of November last year, some 10,000 prisoners were held two to a cell in cells that were designed for one. We have brought the figures down, and our building programme is designed to tackle overcrowding. We no longer have the 30 per cent overcrowding that persisted in 1990–91. Investment in the Prison Service and in expanding the prison estate has begun to tackle that problem. Overcrowding is a government priority, and we are determined to tackle the problem.

My Lords, is it not clearly obvious that the pressure on prison space is inexorably increasing because of the volume of crime in society? Is it not becoming glaringly obvious that the way to stop that is to get to people before they become criminals and avoid spending all of the money on those people after they have become criminals? Are not the Government in the position of someone who is so busy baling that he does not have time to stop the hole in the boat?

My Lords, the noble Lord is being somewhat simplistic in his response to a very complex problem. The Government have a policy of being tough on crime—we have made that plain from the outset and we have been tough on crime. We are putting more resources in place to ensure that criminals are detected. We are of course investing in education, for example, to ensure that people do not slip into a world of criminal activity because they do not have the training, education or resources to make a better life for themselves. We are dealing with all of those problems all the way through. We should be a poor government if we were to neglect—I am afraid to say that previous governments have done so—investment in the prison estate to make the best possible use of that estate.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that there is much confusion among the public as a result of the comments of the Lord Chief Justice and the Home Secretary? Is there not a strong case for a further discussion between the Home Secretary and the Lord Chief Justice without delay? It is no good for my noble friend to state that he regards the Lord Chief Justice and the Home Secretary with respect. There is a great deal of confusion among the public, including the informed public.

My Lords, it would not be right for us to hold back on an important debate on the use of prisons, the future of the Prison Service and the way in which the prison estate should develop. There are good relations between my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and the Lord Chief Justice. They have the friendliest of exchanges on such matters. It is important, and in society's best interests, that we have a wide-ranging debate about the use of prisons and the future of prisons. It would be a sad day indeed if we hid away from that debate. Too often in the past, prisons have been unthought of and uncared for. We need to think more about what we are doing with prisons.